Environmental Studies Shoreline Ecology Field Course: Research at Eye Level Scale

Janet Gifford, Director of Marketing, Linfield College, Adult Degree Program

On a recent summer morning along the Pacific coastline, I ventured to Oregon’s tide pools alongside sixteen Linfield ADP students and instructor Dr. Ned Knight. This was day two of ADP’s five-day environmental studies course Shoreline Ecology, in which students conduct hands-on research at eye level scale. They explore beaches and the rocky intertidal, coastal forests, basalt headlands, lakes, creeks, and dunes on the Oregon coast.


Budding ecologists study marine life at eye level scale

Shoreline Ecology is a 3-credit field studies course. The course attracts adult students completing their bachelor’s degree in many different online majors through Linfield’s Adult Degree Program.  The course is also a part of the Environmental Studies minor that Linfield students may complete along with their major.

The students prepared for the five days in the field by attending two days in the classroom at the Linfield College campus earlier in the summer.  They learned a considerable amount of information, including the geological history of the Pacific coastline and essential characteristics of marine environments.

Adventures in Boiler Bay’s Exquisite Tide Pools

Now it’s 7am and we’re standing on the western edge of the North American continent.  Looking skyward, I see gulls soaring on the wind currents. While it’s roasting at 95 degrees F in the Willamette Valley 50 miles inland, the coast is experiencing cool weather in the low 60s F.  Armed with their field journals and field guides with descriptions and photos of marine creatures and the native plants of the Pacific Northwest, the students are ready for the hands-on part of the course.

We’ve risen early to explore the tide pools in Boiler Bay at low tide. At the moment, Boiler Bay is a considerable drop directly below where we’re standing. Ever resourceful, Ned attaches a sturdy rope to the highway railing. He tosses the length of rope over the edge and it drops out of sight. “Step carefully and hang on to the rope, we’re going to descend to the rocky intertidal,” says Ned. As I step down I’m puzzling over advice from a friend who took the course: “Remember, Nailbrush kelp is your friend.” What could she possibly mean?

Students climb rope into Boiler Bay

The class descends into Boiler Bay

Once we safely descend the steep slope, we’ve entered the rocky intertidal of Boiler Bay. Out come the field journals as the students fan out to research the marine sea life that is now at eye level.

Research at eye level scale entails studying individual organisms and their role in the ecosystems they inhabit. I watch a group of students who are observing tiny creatures in the crevices of the tide pools. The students take measurements, make notes and frequently consult the guidebooks about correct identification of the marine life they are observing. A comfortable give and take arises between the students and Ned, whose teaching style in the field is to be “a guide by their side” instead of the “sage on the stage.”

The farther we venture in the rocky intertidal, the more beautiful and varied is the marine life. Students snap photos of exquisitely beautiful shades of seaweed. Moving carefully from boulder to boulder, I recognize that much of the kelp is very slippery, but one type provides sure footing. I ask a student for help with identification. “That’s Nailbrush kelp,” she says. Now I understand my friend’s advice.

In the tide pools we observe sea stars, one of which is the incredibly brilliant Blood Star. The students teach me names of the anemones, limpets, chiton, nudibranch and many types of kelp. I catch up to Danielle Bertrand who is carefully examining a tide pool. “I’m amazed by how much life there is in our tide pools and on our shores,” she says.

We’ve explored much of the rocky intertidal by the time the incoming tide returns. We make our way back up the slope, thankful for the encouragement of classmates and the confidence of the rope in our hands.

A Boiler Bay treasure: The brilliant blood star

A Boiler Bay treasure: The brilliant blood star

Leaving the rocky intertidal, I ask each student for a word to describe exploring one of the most exquisite locations along the Oregon coast.  “Triumphant, accomplished, sore, inspiring, majestic, epic,” are just a few their exclamations.

More Interconnected Ecology

The rest of the day is full of new ecological adventures. We visit a whale center in Depoe Bay where we learn about the whales of the Pacific coast. Then we travel to a coastal forest where the native species of trees include old growth. The trails lead us through a lush environment of native trees, shrubs, flowers, berries, ferns and groundcovers. We learn how these plants are interconnected and support the habitat for the coastal forest’s native creatures, including birds, insects, pollinators, mammals, and reptiles.  Some of our group spot an American Bald Eagle perched in a tree in the forest.

Our final stop for the day is at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, where we enjoy interactive exhibits.  One of the exhibits titled “Red Flags and Whistle Blowers” brings home to me the critical role of the marine life in the tide pools that we explored in the morning. We learn there are “Keystone” species in every ecosystem whose absence or elimination would cause major ecological changes.  Researchers keep a close eye on the health of the keystone species, and their status serves as a “red flag” to understand the overall health of the ecosystem. The alligator in the Florida Everglades is a keystone species, as an example.  In the Pacific coast’s rocky intertidal zone, the sea stars are keystone species.

Reflections from Our Field Course

At the end of the day, the students offer advice to others considering enrolling in Shoreline Ecology:

“I’d say, do it! Bring waterproof pants and hiking shoes and a dry bag for your smart phone or camera,” advises Erica Speck.

“I’m finding Shoreline Ecology to be energetic and at times, strenuous. It’s a journey of discovery,” observes Patti Clark.

“Absolutely take this course!” says Laura Ranf. “It’s an exciting experience. It takes you out of your comfort zone and helps you see the environment with a new perspective.”

 “You’re entering the habitat of the sea and its creatures. As humans we have a huge impact on their environment. You’ll learn to walk softly and to leave no trace,” Anna Jenik-Schnedler adds.

For me the biggest takeaway of the day spent with the Shoreline Ecology class is a deeper appreciation for the incredible variety of the marine life living in the tide pools that forms part of the web of life in our coastal ecosystem.

Exploring the tide pools expanded Megan Mills’ perspective. She says, “Before it was all seaweed. Now, I have an appreciation for the variation and the variety.”

Erica Speck gained great satisfaction from “knowing the details and how intricate marine life is.”

For Hannah Lavelle, the key takeaway from the course “is the complexity of life.” We view this as success in meeting the ADP’s goals for our online degrees!

If you or someone you know is interested in field study courses, contact an advisor with questions or start an application!

Student Sara Phillips examines a tiny tide pool crab

Student Sara Phillips examines a tiny tide pool crab

Learn More: Why do students sign up for a hands-on field course like Shoreline Ecology?

The first reason students seek out field study courses is that the material is fascinating and invigorating. In addition, field study courses meet the academic requirements of a variety of degree programs. Additionally, many adult learners are drawn to these courses due to their short duration, which can nicely accommodate work and family responsibilities. In students’ own words:

“I like the freedom to explore. When I discovered that this course would work toward my RN to BSN degree requirements for a 300 – 400 level course outside of my major and also be outdoors and fun, I signed up.” – Sara Phillips

“On my academic advisor’s recommendation, I registered for the course because my family and I would be able to combine a vacation while I satisfy a graduation requirement.” – Anna Jenik-Schnedler.

“Online classes are a necessity for lots of practical reasons like my work schedule as a nurse, but I love the interaction and the give and take in learning from a live hands-on class.” – Patti Clark.

“I needed some elective credits for graduation, and who wants to learn in the classroom, especially during the summer, when you can learn in the field? This class is very much worth it.” – Jeff Dillon.